Obituary: Professor H. H. Lamb

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The Independent Online
H. H. Lamb was the greatest climatologist of his time. He, almost single-handed, alerted the world to the inconstancy of present climate.

In many ways it was inevitable that Lamb would have a distinguished scientific career, because of his family background, but the route he took owed something to his rebellion against inevitabilities. His grandfather was the mathematician Horace Lamb, who published textbooks used by meteorologists, and his father was a professor of engineering. Other members of these two Lamb generations were also successful and influential. As a child and young man, Lamb felt the weight of what he himself described as the terrible concentration of expectations on him as the only male descendant of the family bearing the name of Lamb.

During his childhood, there were hints of rebellion against these expectations and against a rather stern upbringing. He much admired, secretly, his Uncle Henry, an artist and the black sheep of the family. Contact with the family of his friend Trevor Huddleston introduced the young Hubert to different ways of looking at the world. Another friendship led to regular teatimes at the house where Lewis Fry Richardson was the head of the family.

Richardson had already attempted the first-ever numerical prediction of the weather, a technique which could not be used effectively until the development of powerful computers, decades later. It was one of those strange twists that they never talked about meteorology or climate, but Richardson's Quaker philosophy had a strong influence on the rest of Lamb's life.

A much later twist is that, 40 years on, one of the reasons Lamb decided to leave the Meteorological Office to found the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia was because he felt there was an over- emphasis on the type of research Richardson had started, to the exclusion of the research Lamb was undertaking.

Family pressure continued during Lamb's time at Oundle School. He was forced to abandon history and languages in favour of sciences. He went to Cambridge to study Natural Sciences and then, after two years, decisively rebelled. He switched to Geography, ending up with a mongrel degree, which his father told him he would regret all his life. In fact, his Cambridge training provided Lamb with the springboard to pursue his catholic interests in climate and in climate-human interactions. His undergraduate rebellion also encouraged his propensity to question conventional scientific thought, a characteristic which permeated his lifetime's research.

Lamb started with the Meteorological Office in 1936. With typical modesty, he claimed that the only reason he got the job was because the director had been a student of his grandfather. Very soon, Lamb produced a well-received paper on the formation of North Sea fogs, but its publication was frustrated because of its potential use to the enemy, when Europe was on the verge of war. The war impinged on Lamb more directly, when he was instructed to work on the meteorology of gas spraying. He immediately sent in his resignation which, in the absence of the Director, was accepted.

The Director's return, however, saw Lamb transferred to the Irish Meteorological Service, where he trained new recruits and was charged with producing weather forecasts for the new transatlantic passenger flights. This was a considerable challenge since data were very sparse, and neutral Ireland was not privy to British observations. Lamb had to glean most of his information from air crews arriving at Foynes. The perfect safety record was testimony to his almost unbelievable scientific intuition of the behaviour of Atlantic weather systems.

Soon after his return to the Meteorological Office in 1946, Lamb found himself on the whaler Balaena in the Antarctic, as expedition meteorologist. His experience of forecasting with minimal observational data over the North Atlantic clearly helped him chart conditions in the Southern Ocean, from the few observations in lower- middle-latitude lands and the use of expedition aircraft as an instrument to measure the extent of clear weather ahead of the nearest meteorological threat.

Lamb's own sharp powers of observation on the outgoing and homeward voyages nurtured growing seeds of doubt over the received wisdom about the constancy of present climate. No less a person than George Deacon, the founder of the National Institute of Oceanography, had insisted, to Lamb, that the sharp discontinuities between warm and cold waters in the Southern Ocean were invariant. Lamb saw that they were not.

In 1950 Lamb published a classic paper in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society on weather types and natural seasons in Britain. The Lamb Weather Type (LWT) classification it described spawned a whole new industry in climatological research. The LWTs have been used to characterise atmospheric circulation changes, have been transported to other geographical regions, and - since they encapsulate much information on atmospheric conditions - have been applied to many uses, including air- pollution forecasting.

At around the same time, Lamb - and climatology - experienced a huge slice of luck. He was posted to the Meteorological Office's moribund climatology department, where he was able to indulge his fascination, with little interruption, in what was probably the most complete, and unstudied, meteorological archive in the world. He set about reconstructing monthly atmospheric circulations over the North Atlantic and Europe back to the 1750s, confirming his growing conviction of the reality of climate change on time-scales of significance to modern humankind. He also started to make the first connections between sea-surface temperatures and the atmospheric circulation.

It is ironic that there is a major effort today to understand such connections, because of the significance of links between ocean circulations and the overlying atmosphere, much of it with the computer techniques Lamb felt were used in an uncritical way right to the end of his life.

His work with the Meteorological Office archives strengthened Lamb's burgeoning international reputation. He was receptive to approaches from scientists from other disciplines. His own predilections, and his undergraduate training, ensured an open mind to interdisciplinarity, decades ahead of this now fashionable concept. He started to work with botanists and historians.

As his interests in climate variations extended further back in time, Lamb started to examine the possible causes of climatic variations, particularly volcanic eruptions. After a prodigious effort, painstaking in its detail, he produced a measure of the dust in the atmosphere following every volcanic eruption since 1500. He was able to demonstrate the links beween major events and cooler conditions. With the 1970 paper "Volcanic Dust in the Atmosphere", Lamb's name again entered the scientific literature as an input for other climatologists' analyses; this time via the Lamb Dust Veil Index.

In the meantime, in 1963, Lamb was awarded a special merit promotion in the Meteorological Office, mainly for his work on the Antarctic. This was accompanied by a rare freedom to pursue research interests. Towards the end of the 1960s, however, Lamb felt that the support he needed to conduct his labour-intensive research would be more suitably found outside the Meteorological Office. In 1972 he left to found the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia.

Many would have regarded this as too uncomfortable a challenge, approaching retirement age, and having to confront the uncertainties of research funding in the very different world of universities. Certainly, many were sceptical of the success of such a venture. But Lamb still had a point to prove, and much to do.

His period at UEA saw the completion of his greatest work; a triumph of scientific synthesis and interpretation. Climate: present, past and future appeared in two volumes, published in 1972 and 1977, and is a magnificent reference work for all researching in climatology and climate change. He appointed researchers trained in historical methods to tease out the climatic information buried in documentary records, and others to reconstruct climate from "proxy" indicators. He published Climate, History and the Modern World in 1982, after his retirement, and brought out the second edition in 1995.

Although he was Director of the Climatic Research Unit for only six years, it was time enough for him to experience the satisfaction of convincing the remaining doubters of the reality of climate variations on time-scales of decades and centuries. He injected so much momentum into the unit in those first six years that, today, 25 years after its founding, it has a secure world reputation for climate research.

An irony is that, now the world is acutely aware of global climate change, Lamb had maintained a guarded attitude to the importance of greenhouse gas warming. Although many others have accepted this, he felt that there was too much reluctance to consider the full range of other, natural, causes of change. Right to the end of his life, he was promoting his "different view".

His different view of climate has left behind a deeper understanding of the nature of climate change, and of the interactions between natural systems which contribute to it. He mapped out the way forward for developing a rigorous study of what was, at the start of his career, the rather imprecise preserve of a minority group. His contribution has been immense. That he did all this, whilst still remaining modest, unassuming, and deeply concerned about the lot of his fellows, is the measure of the man.

Just before he died, Lamb completed the manuscript of his autobiography, Through All the Changing Scenes of Life: a meteorologist's tale.

Hubert Horace Lamb, climatologist: born Bedford 22 September 1913; Meteorological Research Officer, Irish Meteorological Service 1940-44; staff, UK Meteorological Office 1945-71; Founder and Director, Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia 1972-78, Emeritus Professor 1978-97; married Moira Milligan (two daughters, one son); died Holt, Norfolk 28 June 1997.